In an ugly game, the Virginia Cavaliers managed to pull victory from the jaws of defeat against the now 3-23 (1-14) Louisville Cardinals. Eventually winning by a three-point margin, 61-58, there were few bright spots in a game that was entirely too close. Nevertheless, we have five takeaways for the Wahoos moving forward.
UVA avoids a disastrous loss despite playing poorly
With 5:18 remaining in the first half, things were going quite poorly for UVA as Louisville had just taken a 26-17 lead while the Wahoos had shot 7-23 from the field to start. Fortunately, Virginia proceeded to go on a 12-0 run to close out the first period of play as the Cavaliers clamped up defensively by switching Reece Beekman onto El Ellis and doubling the post. Offensively, the ‘Hoos did well running in transition and exploiting the turnovers they forced on the other end.
At that point in time and after Virginia stretched its lead to 37-30 early in the second, it appeared that all was well and that the game was essentially over. And, yet, Louisville simply wouldn’t go away. Ellis stayed hot, scoring 21 points on the night as the Cardinals shot 8-20 (40%) on threes and turned the ball over on just 17.2% of their possessions compared to their horrendous 23.2% season rate.
With that all said, it’s not easy to evaluate this type of game. Louisville is straight up bad. Not just bad for being in the ACC, genuinely a bottom tier Division I team. The fact that the Wahoos allowed the Cardinals to stay in this game for 40 minutes and that Louisville was a heroic three on the final possession away from sending it to overtime is a bad indication for where Virginia is right now.
On the bright (?) side, UVA found a way to win despite playing objectively its worst game of the season. That counts for something, at least. And for how bad Louisville has been this year, they did just play Miami to an eight-point game on the road on Saturday while the Cardinals got their first conference win two weeks ago today. Were it not for a 34-point shellacking against Pitt eight days ago, one could say that Louisville is playing its best basketball of the season.
To win the ACC Regular Season Title there are going to be some gross road wins. It comes with the territory. This victory definitely fits under that category. Virginia did what it needed to do. Now it’s time to get the heck out of Louisville and address the issues that arose from this result.
Shooting has officially gone cold
In UVA’s last four games, the team has shot 31% (18-58) from beyond the arc and 61.3% (49-80) from the free throw line. It doesn’t get much uglier than that. Against Louisville, Armaan Franklin and Isaac McKneely were the only players to shoot 50% or better from the field with Franklin going 5-8 from the floor, 1-2 from three, and 3-4 from the line and McKneely shooting 3-4 from the field and 2-3 from long range. Franklin’s 14 points led the way alongside Kihei Clark’s 14.
Otherwise, Reece Beekman shot 0-6 (0-4 from three, 3-4 from the line) on the night while Jayden Gardner went 5-10, and Ben Vander Plas was 4-11 (2-8 from three, 0-1 at the stripe).
Clearly, shots haven’t been falling for UVA of late. But the dominance in the paint has been the offense’s driving force as the guards are uniquely suited to get defenses moving and Jayden Gardner can often win individual matchups and produce when the shooting goes cold. It’s one of the beauties of this team as the versatility of offensive strengths is a cornerstone of what makes Virginia a good offensive team. Thus, making shots isn’t an absolute necessity for this group.
The stats back up what we all already knew: Virginia's late-game FT shooting is an issue.— Ben Wieland (@BenWieland) February 16, 2023
The Hoos were 1-4 tonight in the clutch. They're at 67.9% on the season, last in the ACC and 253rd nationally.
Gotta figure it out before tournament time. pic.twitter.com/SJY8I8tQON
Yet, 31% from deep and 61.3% from the charity stripe is practically asking to lose games. Shooting 67.9% on free throws in the clutch this season (last in the ACC and 253rd nationally) is particularly ugly. The fact that the Wahoos are 3-1 in this stretch is a sign of how they can win with defense and by scoring the ball in other ways. But, for Virginia to win the ACC Regular Season title, contend in the conference tournament, and then make a run in March, their shooters will have to simply be better.
Reece Beekman struggles on offense while showing up defensively
I already mentioned Beekman, but the delta between his offensive production and defensive success against the Cardinals was notable. We got another pretty telling look at what this offense looks like when he’s inefficient and isn’t making plays for others. His two assists tied for a season low as this was also only the second time he had a one-to-one assist to turnover ratio this season. On the one hand, that’s indicative of how good he typically is. On the other, it’s a sign of just how poorly he played in this game.
His 0-4 shooting from three was perhaps a regression to the mean of his ability as a catch and shoot guy. They weren’t the worst misses and he should bounce back, but not seeing him convert open looks was surprising as he came into the game as a 42.3% shooter from deep this season (albeit on low volume).
Defensively, it was a different story. Beekman was his typically disruptive self with four steals and a block while he guarded Ellis pretty well all things considered. The Louisville guard still got his at times, but switching Beekman onto him late in the first half helped to negate the success he was having when attacking the paint.
It’s fine to have a bad game here and there. Reece has established himself as a borderline first round NBA draft pick. Sometimes guys just have an off night, and that’s what he had against Louisville. His value even when playing poorly is impressive and, assuming he is sounder offensively moving forward, he’s still arguably UVA’s most valuable player.
Kihei Clark carries UVA when it matters
He may not have been incredibly efficient, but just as he did against Duke, Kihei Clark made the necessary plays late in the game to lead UVA to a win. He scored nine of Virginia’s final 15 points and assisted on four of the others with a number of impressive acrobatic finishes and no look passes. There’s just something about him and clutch plays in the KFC Yum! Center...
Seriously, though, it can’t been stated enough just how critical his return for a fifth season has been for Virginia. The Cavaliers would be so, so much worse off if he wasn’t on this roster and being able to rely on him when things aren’t going well is such a luxury. As the saying goes, when the going gets tough, the tough get going. There should never be a doubt regarding Clark’s toughness, which he displayed once more tonight in his 14-point, six-assist, and four-rebound performance.
Front-court play remains in flux
In games like these when shots aren’t falling and the guards are in a funk, finding a scoring punch in the front-court probably would’ve made life a lot easier for Virginia. Granted, Ben Vander Plas (who notched a double double with 11 rebounds) and Jayden Gardner each scored 10 points, but that came on 10 and 11 shots apiece.
Feels like a good time to point out that the BVP-Gardner frontcourt has been outscored by 1 point per 100 possessions this season, while Virginia's next-"worst" frontcourt pairing of BVP-Dunn is +17.8 per 100 (min 150 poss). It's been the worst big-man pairing by far.— Ben Wieland (@BenWieland) February 16, 2023
While both those two players are critical pieces for this roster, their combination on the floor together continues to be relatively ineffective. Each being arguably a net neutral (or maybe even negative) defensively means they have to produce at much higher levels offensively than, say, Kadin Shedrick or Ryan Dunn who can bring more athleticism and playmaking defensively.
While UVA’s lineup versatility is a key advantage it has over opponents, finding a base combination that includes one of each of those types of players ought to yield more success on either side of the ball. There’s no easy answer and this isn’t meant as a criticism of the coaching staff or of the individual players. This is frankly just a slightly odd assortment of front-court players who continue to be up and down as the season progresses.